Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate in Iowa followed in the ignominious footsteps of the six that came before — it was an insult to truth, common sense, and representative democracy. Here’s my take.
Trump wins . . . again: Donald Trump made a big show of skipping the debate because of his feud with Megyn Kelly and Fox News. It was a smart move. Not only did Trump not have to watch the evening’s festivities, but he will likely benefit from the circular firing squad that took place in Des Moines.
His main opponent, Ted Cruz, tried to hit Trump at the outset and only proceeded to punch himself in the face with one of those patented Ted Cruz moments of breathless earnestness that rang even more hollow than usual. Trump is leading in the polls in Iowa. His only real competition comes from Cruz, who had a lousy night (more on that to come), got beaten up by everyone on stage, and did little to help himself.
At some point, Donald Trump is going to badly miscalculate and make a mistake. He’s not invincible. But it didn’t happen last night.
Everyone hates Ted Cruz: The evening pretty much consisted of each candidate repeating lines from their stump speeches. But there was one moment of honesty that shone through — and it came from, of all people, Marco Rubio. In a back-and-forth with Cruz over immigration he said, “This is the lie that Ted’s campaign is built on . . . that he’s the most conservative guy, and everyone else is a, you know, everyone else is a RINO (Republican In Name Only). The truth is, Ted, throughout this campaign, you’ve been willing to say or do anything in order to get votes.”
Coming from Rubio that’s gotta sting. But, of course, it’s true. And it wasn’t just Rubio. Rand Paul also accused Cruz of having an “authenticity problem.”
This is increasingly becoming a challenge for Cruz as his favorabilities among Republicans have declined dramatically in the past few weeks. Cruz was off his game all night, appearing more unctuous and phony than usual. He needed to have a strong night to catch Trump and arrest his own fall. He didn’t.
By comparison, Rand Paul and Jeb Bush shined: Since Trump wasn’t there to give them noogies and wedgies, Paul and Bush actually turned in decent performances. Paul gave a thoughtful answer when asked about criminal justice reform, and Bush unabashedly embraced the mantle of membership in the GOP establishment. Without having to worry about being abused by Trump he did pretty well. It won’t matter. Both men are in single digits in Iowa and their good, but not great, showings Thursday night aren’t going to save them.
Ben Carson . . . I got nothing: I don’t doubt that Carson is a nice man and a brilliant surgeon, but my gosh, when it comes to public policy you could put 100 monkeys in a room with 100 typewriters and come up more coherent answers than what Carson produced this evening. When he said that Vladimir Putin “is a one-horse country: oil and energy.” I thought Twitter was going to explode. He did, however, at the end of the debate show that he could memorize the preamble of the Constitution and recite it. How this shows he’s a viable candidate for president . . . your guess is as good as mine.
Simply put, he has no business being anywhere near the stage of a Republican presidential debate. I know I’ve been saying this for six months, but honestly, it’s embarrassing.
Chris Christie is shameless: There’s something about Christie that grates. Here’s a guy who loves to tell people he’s the only Republican candidate who makes decisions and is held accountable, because, you see, he’s a governor and not one of those mealy-mouthed senators who just talk and talk and talk and don’t do anything. But last night he got asked a question about the so-called Bridgegate scandal in New Jersey, and here’s what Christie said: “There has been three different investigations and proven that I knew nothing.” He then bragged about showing leadership by firing members of his own staff who appear to have committed politically motivated crimes that he claims to have had no knowledge of — even though governors are held accountable, or something.
That actually wasn’t Christie’s worst moment. The nadir came during his closing statement. He evoked the fear he felt on 9/11 when he couldn’t locate his wife for several hours in lower Manhattan. “Terrorism in this country scares everyone,” he said. You know, why terrorism scares everyone? Because disreputable politicians like Christie use their own personal trauma to exploit the public’s anxiety about it in a naked pander for votes. Shame on you, Chris Christie.
Marco Rubio is terrifying: Rubio’s fearmongering was even more shameless than Cruz’s. He accused Barack Obama of having “systematically and habitually [violating] the Constitution.” He called ISIS “the most dangerous jihadist group in the history of mankind,” saying it wants “to trigger an apocalyptic Armageddon showdown,” whatever that means. He used the word “apocalyptic” five times — 4 in regard to ISIS, and once to describe Iran.
He called the threat from ISIS “unprecedented,” even though it’s killed fewer Americans than those who die each year because of falling televisions.
He bragged about sending terrorists arrested in the United States to Gitmo, which would likely violate the Constitution. He said the rules of engagement in fighting ISIS needed to be relaxed, which would likely represent a war crime. He said he would rebuild the United States military even though it already is far and away the most powerful in the world.
On four separate occasions he used the words “when I am president,” even though increasingly that looks like a far-fetched notion.
You get the sense with Rubio that he has a string on his back that when pulled causes him to say, “when I am president,” “apocalyptic,” “radical Islamic terrorists,” and “ISIS scary.” In an election cycle where farcical, divorced-from-reality, threat-mongering has become a depressing norm, Marco Rubio is the king. Every answer he gives on foreign policy represents a new and creative way to scare the hell out of Americans. It shows not only how clueless Rubio is about foreign policy and national security, but how brazenly dishonest he is as a politician. Americans deserve better.
But then, that’s a pretty good summation of what happened Thursday night.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.